Saturday, April 30, 2005

Greener Grass

I have often thought recently that I would much prefer to be playing the piano to working 40 hours a week. Of course no one would pay me to play the piano and I get paid a lot to show up for work.

Just today when I was at Bill’s house to play duets with him, he commented that most of the members of the National Symphony would rather be doing something other than making music together, but the schedule and money are too good to tempt them to leave. Isn’t it ironic that they have the job I think I want and they also are not content?

Maybe it has to do with how we view jobs that earn money as opposed to activities that we pursue just because we like them and we choose to do them over all the other possible choices. Perhaps that is why retirement looks so good to me. At that point in my life, nothing I do will be because it earns me a dime – it will all be just for fun! At least that’s the idea.

I’m already making a deal with myself that if something I do in retirement starts to take on the characteristics of a job – fixed schedule, expected product, STRESS – I will move on to something else. I am so looking forward to enjoying the things that I have to sample in small quantities right now because I still seem to have this 40+ hour commitment each week. I can feel the right time to retire coming up soon, and I can guarantee that I will have no regrets once it happens!

Friday, April 29, 2005

Is God Real?

This is one of the thorny questions we tossed around at our recent seder. The majority of us – Jews and Christians alike – were convinced that a belief in God was necessary to apply those religious labels. Rebecca goes so far as to demand a God that “kicks ass and takes names”. Whereas Linda asserts that she can call herself a Jew and have absolutely no belief in God. When I converted to Judaism, I clearly remember that there was no requirement to adhere to a creed, only to believe in God. In rethinking this, I remembered, however, that the ultra-liberal rabbi who did my conversion believed in a cosmic force as his God. Obviously not all Jews believe in the Old Testament God that I have always worshiped.

David pursued this issue this week with our rabbi, trying to weigh the importance of a belief in God. Danny came out strongly on the side of a belief in God, saying that a Jew who did not believe in God was the equivalent of an American who denied his patriotism. However, Linda was not only not convinced, but was offended that David was questioning her right to call herself a Jew and be an atheist. She at one point suggested that he was behaving like a conservative Christian in attempting to assert his own belief. They have since just agreed to disagree and the e-mail barrage is over.

I may not buy all the stories in the Torah as actually having happened. But I have always had a very strong belief in God that conveyed to my new religion, with God simply laughing because I was changing my religious label. For as long as I can remember, I have prayed to God and had my prayers answered. All I have to do to reaffirm my belief in God is to watch the sun rise and set, the seasons change, a baby be born, a flower open. I am always amazed at how anyone could doubt the existence of God in the face of all this compelling evidence.

I am a relatively strong person, but I still rely on God in the face of adversity or sadness or death. It is the presence of God that gets me through any personal crisis and make the world right again. My Grandmother’s favorite hymn was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther. I have since left behind that old hymn, but the sentiment is still there. My God is indeed my rock and my salvation.

The Real Person

To a degree we are like chameleons, those little green lizards that can change color to blend in with their surroundings. We adapt our way of speaking, of gesturing, of dressing so as not to seem different from those around us. For me, this was especially true when I was in a sorority in college. There was an expected behavior that almost every girl emulated to a degree. The mating game also causes us to comport ourselves in a way that is most alluring to the object of our desire. That was all ages ago for me.

I like to think that I am truly my own person. What you see is what you get – no more, no less. I have a secure marriage with a loving husband, so I am certainly not into baiting men. I have friends that are much like myself, so I need not modify my behavior around them. There is that hidden urge to use profanity – a good s--t or f--k – occasionally that feels so good and sounds so bad. But other than that, I am who I appear to be.

I’ve come to realize that this is probably not the case with therapists. By the nature of their work, they take on the personna that we most need in order to deliver the greatest benefit. This is well and good and usually not apparent. For the most part, we know absolutely nothing about the people we see for professional purposes. We give them little thought from one visit to the next. But I suddenly find that I am in a situation where I have become almost a friend to someone I see professionally. I read her BLOG. I know a lot about her and her circle of friends. It is becoming clear that she is playing a “mother superior” role in therapy that is just a performance. Should I care if it is beneficial to me? And it definitely has been. It probably should not matter. But somehow I want to see therapy as more than play-acting. It causes one to wonder where the real person really lies. It also makes it clear to me why professional boundaries are so important so as not to cause the confusion I now face. It’s hard when doors to a private life have been opened a crack to suddenly close them and retreat to a totally anonymous business relationship.

I have another pending situation. I have recently started playing duets with a medical doctor, who is not only a skilled musician, but who also comes highly recommended as a doctor. We immediately hit it off when we got together to play. We have children who are exactly the same age, obviously similar interests, similar values. After my great disappointment in my internist last year, when he never even called me after my bout with thyroid cancer, I have been looking for a new doctor. I asked Deborah if she was willing to take a new patient and she agreed. So
I will now know her as Dr. E---. I understand from a mutual friend who has this dual role with her that she is a master at keeping the necessary separation.

I think we are all searching for reality in all of our relationships, but sometimes it is elusive.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A Tale of Two Seders

“What is it about this night that makes it different from all other nights?”

We had a seder at our house on Saturday night – the first night of Pesach. On Sunday, we attended a seder at our neighbors’ house. They could not have been more different.

David and I had not hosted a seder for several years. We had been somewhat disappointed in the last few we attended because there was nothing to think about, nothing to talk about. We just paid lipservice to what was written by someone else in some random Passover haggadah. This year we chose to invest a lot of energy into creating something special. We invited a manageable number of guests, who hopefully would be compatible enough, while bringing some diversity to the group – some non-Jewish, varied ages, old friends, new friends, even a Jewish witch (sounds like a contradiction of terms). David went to work on finding a beautiful haggadah, with thought-provoking passages and lovely pictures. I decided to play with some of the pictures and create candle-lit centerpieces for the table. And then I turned to figuring out all the food. The meal is a big part of any seder.

At 6 PM on Saturday our 11 guests arrived and by 6:45 the seder was underway. The room was aglow with candlelight as the sun began to set and David began to read. He had designed the readings to allow a lot of chances for discussion and debate. We started off by talking about whether the story of the Jews in Egypt working for King Pharoah was real or just fiction, which evolved into whether or not Jews are required to believe in God. We passed around Elijah’s cup and everyone added a drop of wine while naming a present-day source of suffering or tragedy in the world. The two youngest children – ages 15 and 17 – asked the 4 questions, which the seder focuses on. The Passover story slowly unfolded as the Jews crossed the Red Sea and headed into the desert. We talked about the significance of the items on the seder plate – the roasted lamb shankbone, the roasted egg, the bitter herbs, the haroset, and the horseradish. We drank the symbolic 4 cups of wine. We sang at appropriate moments throughout the story. At one point our voices joined together to read Martin Luther’s “I have a dream” speech.

By the time we finally were ready to eat, some of the food had been heated for a long time, but this was a case where the quality of the food was not nearly as important as the discussion that had ensued. We ate hard-boiled eggs, homemade gefillte fish with spicy red horseradish, matzoh ball soup, asparagus vinaigrette, caponata, roast duck, beef brisket, mashed potatoes, mushroom kugel, and rhubarb tsimmes. There was no shortage of food!

Then we returned to the Pesach story to bring the Jews out of the desert. The children (teenagers) looked for the hidden Afikommen and quickly found it, earning a small reward. Toward the end we passed around Elijah’s cup once again, this time adding a drop of wine for a blessing we had experienced throughout the past year. As the door was opened for Elijah to enter, David symbolically filled Elijah’s cup to overflowing into a very old cut-glass bowl to acknowledge everyone’s blessings. When we finally ended the seder, which was much later than usual, everyone actually applauded because it had been so meaningful.

Then those of us who remained ate wonderful flourless chocolate desserts, leaving us with sweet memories of a wonderful evening.

The following night we attended a second-night seder at the home of neighbors who had joined us the night before. Their 17-year-old daughter is participating in a group that combines Jews and African Americans in an effort to help them better understand each other’s cultures and to commemorate that they have struggled together to achieve freedom in this country. So the guests included Ryan, one of the African American kids in the group, and his father, Kerrick, who happened to be seated between David and me. This was definitely their first seder. The haggadah was more traditional, using a lot of Thee’s and Thou’s. We skipped most of the Hebrew, probably so as not to overwhelm the guests who didn’t read Hebrew. There was not much opportunity for discussion as we raced the Jews out of Egypt and into the desert. We did go through the Pesach symbols, sometimes not clearly knowing when we were to eat or drink. The food, which in this case had not been reheated too long, was fantastic, as usual. Unfortunately there was no “I have a dream” speech, so probably the most vivid memory of this seder for the African Americans was all of the strange new food.

Two very different seders, but the same theme both nights: the release of the Jews from slavery which launched them into the desert on their way to the promised land. And the eternal hope that next year Jerusalem may know peace.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Being a Long Distance Parent

I have been thinking about my children a lot this week as I get ready for our Passover seder. I so wanted them to be able to come home – to join us for this yearly journey of the Jews out of slavery on their way to the promised land. But neither Daniel or Rachel is able to come home.

Usually when Daniel calls us there is a problem. He has lost something, his OCD is going crazy, the car is acting up, or he needs financial help or advice. But this week when he called, it was to give us some good news. Daniel was invited to join the Law Review at the University of Arizona based on his first year grades. Last fall he thought long and hard about a topic for his paper and finally decided to write on The Alien Torte Statute. In early April he submitted his 60+ page paper for consideration. This week he found out that his paper is going to be published. Only about 1 in 4 papers is published, so this is a real honor. This has got to be good for his ego!

Rachel, who is usually on top of the world, called today in tears. She has been trying for months to arrange an internship in psychology for the summer. All of her friends seem to have finalized their plans and none of hers have worked out. So she is in a panic. Nothing I said could make her feel better. After I hung up, I e-mailed my friend Guerry in San Diego. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and does research at the University of San Diego. Guerry has lots of connections in Boston, as well, because she started out there. I later heard from her, saying that she had at least one lead in Boston and also was inviting Rachel to come to San Diego for a couple of months to work with her – a very generous offer! So hopefully something will work out.

In both cases – good and bad news – I really wished there weren’t so many miles between us. These are times when a parent would like to be able to see the child’s face and give a big hug. I miss them, especially when they need me!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Hope for Santiago

My friend Linda came through. She hooked me up with Daisy Pasqualvaqua, a clinical psychologist who does educational testing of children. Linda has referred a number of American University students to her and had excellent results. An added bonus is that she is bilingual. When I finally reached her, I knew immediately this was the right person to help Santiago. She proposed three testing sessions – a total of 7 hours of testing. She normally charges $2300 for this battery of tests and the written evaluation, but agreed to a fee of $1200 since it would be difficult for us to cover such a large fee. I made an appointment for 9 AM on May 13.

Meanwhile Mrs. Burns, the special education person at Flintstone Elementary School, has not done any of the things she had agreed to do following our meeting with her last week:
– Send the family a “parents’ rights” booklet in Spanish,
– Send the detailed test results from 2002, and
– Determine a time for the meeting with Santiago’s faculty team on April 25.
When I tried to call and ask about these things, she said she could only speak to his mother (who unfortunately can’t communicate with her in English).

I decided to try to get some more information about Prince Georges County’s policy concerning independent testing, especially the circumstances under which the county is obligated to pay for the testing. After about a dozen calls, I finally reached a wonderful woman, Dianne Dormio, who actually wants to help me. She is the compliance representative for the northern part of P.G. County. She referred me to a Dr. Crayton, who is her counterpart in southern P.G. County. She also told me that if Morena (Santiago’s mom) signs a parental waiver, I can then communicate with people like Mrs. Burns at his school. When I called Flintstone about this, I couldn’t find anyone who had ever seen such a form. I’m not surprised. But I haven’t given up yet on this. Meanwhile, Ms. Dormio contacted Dr. Crayton and suggested that she exert some pressure on the school to get moving on this case and that she actually come to the meeting on April 25.

Morena is delighted that she may finally be getting help for her son – or at least some answers as to the nature of his problem. I am so excited to think this may all work out. My heart goes out to mild-mannered immigrants like Morena, who put all of their trust in U. S. bureaucracies, like the public school system, only to find out that they don’t really have their best interests at heart. In this case, they are far too busy dealing with disciplinary cases to do what is necessary to help a little boy who never causes any trouble.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Gift of a Day

It isn’t often that we are given a gift of time – once a year in the fall when we go on daylight savings time. But today I was given most of a day off by the Federal government. In fact, the entire Census Bureau staff was released from duty at 10:30 AM and you’ll never guess why – a bomb threat perhaps, or maybe a suspicious package, or a letter with white powder. It was actually nothing quite so exciting. We simply had no water and the toilets wouldn’t flush. How’s that for a reason to go home?

So I had time for a leisurely lunch, time to clean out the basement, time to write in my BLOG, time to practice the trope for my July torah reading, time to practice the piano, maybe even time to finish next Sunday’s book club book – all at the expense of Uncle Sam (A.K.A. the American taxpayer).

I have been tired for several days now. But with these extra hours I will have a chance to get caught up and get a good night’s sleep once again.

Believe me, I really had nothing to do with the water main break. But I am certainly glad it happened...

Monday, April 11, 2005

Turning Up the Heat

Until I reached menopause, I had spent my whole life being cold. But with all those hormone changes, my thermostat also seemed to change. I still occasionally have cold feet in the winter, but I tend to run more hot that cold these days. In fact I can no longer bear to wear woolen clothing – it is just too warm!

This is most evident in the middle of the night. My hot flashes don’t cause me to break out in a sweat, but just to be so hot that I must throw off the sheet and all the covers. Usually my body slowly cools off and I add back a layer at a time and then finally drift back to sleep. I always wonder what is actually going on internally to cause this weird sensation of heat, even in the depths of winter.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Making Space

I find that one of the biggest challenges I face in life is deciding what to get rid of – in my office, in my attic, in my closet, in my mind, in my heart. When deciding what to pitch out, there are always those lingering questions, “Will I ever really need this again? Even if I don’t need it, will I miss it?” But there is only so much space, and periodically we all must purge in order not to be swallowed up by paper and clothes and things and emotions.

Just yesterday at the office I spent about 2 hours going through a filing cabinet that had seen one-way traffic for a long time. I had continued to put things in without ever needing to access anything in that set of files. When all was said and done, I had eliminated all the files on 2 shelves. Many of the file folders were over 10 years old and had long since passed from my mind. I can say with certainty that none of that information will ever be missed. I plan to continue this office cleanup project so that when I retire (perhaps in the next year or two), I can walk out of the office with just a few mementos and not leave behind a sea of useless paper for whoever takes my place. So maybe I am just working up to a decision to retire. Whatever the motivation for my pitching session, it felt good to get rid of all that stuff!

I feel equally challenged at home. When you live in the same place for almost 30 years, you tend to accumulate a lot of material things. The attic and the basement suddenly become crowded with everyone’s discards that don’t make the trash can. No one else in my household seems to be bothered by clutter, so I am the one who gets to decide what stays and what goes, putting the “keepers” into nicely labeled boxes. They make fun of me for my obsession with organization, but I cringe to think what the attic and basement would look like otherwise.

Growing up I had very few clothes, so there was never the problem that I face now, where to be able to buy new clothes, I need to get rid of some of my old clothes. I usually use the rule of thumb that if I haven’t worn something for 2 years, it goes to the Salvation Army. I wonder how many people I could outfit with all of the clothes I have gotten rid of over the years? Of course, if I had just had the foresight to know, I would have saved my vintage 70's clothes so that my daughter could have worn them and been way cool in high school. Who could ever imagine?

Perhaps the most difficult clean-up project I have taken on was dismantling my parents’ house of 50 years upon my father’s death. He could never bear to throw anything away – literally. He had the plastic wrappers from the newspapers, the boxes his vitamins had been shipped in, the styrofoam trays from his TV dinners – all of them, just thinking there might be some good use for them in his many projects. I’m afraid I threw away some good things while slogging through the mounds of worthless things. I had only 5 days to pull apart and organize an entire lifetime. It was a sad week, with a few happy moments as I chanced upon some things forgotten.

I find that making emotional space is the greatest challenge of all. Feelings don’t tend to wear their labels permanently or stay in the places to which we relegate them. Instead just when I think I have put something in the trash can, it’s back in my head clamoring for my attention. There always has to be enough space for important family loves to flourish, but there must be some left over for friends that come and go and new fascinations with art and music and literature and being creative. Actually this space defies control.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pink Boas

They’re back! The oriental cherry trees are once again in bloom. For me this marks the real beginning of spring – anything else up to this point is just a tease. My friend Sharon at meditation on Wednesday said that she had dropped her work in the middle of the day to ride her bicycle down to the Tidal Basis that day to see the cherry trees in bloom. Probably a good idea because they will soon be gone.

I hadn’t thought any more about making a trip down there to see the annual spectacle. But then as I was trying desperately to get to my pilates class yesterday afternoon, I found the traffic totally bogged down at guess where? – the Tidal Basin. This was one time that I didn’t mind moving at a snail’s pace. It was like driving through a pink cloud. It was almost as though Washington was dressed in a myriad of pink boas. Even though it was a gray day and there was a slight drizzle, the beauty of this sea of pink was enchanting.

I was a little late to pilates, but it was well worth it to be able to luxuriate in the color of spring that never lasts long enough.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

In Search of Dialogue

I envy people who have long-standing e-mail exchanges with friends, relatives, coworkers, whomever. I have sporadic exchanges with all of these groups of people, but nothing as regular as my daily vitamin pill. I can go for weeks (months, years, decades) without hearing from someone and then out of the blue I get a message (or send one). In most cases, we simply pick up where we left off and it isn’t obvious that there has been a big gap.

I guess I am just anxious to talk about real issues – things beyond the latest movie, where I am going on my next vacation, where to get the best sushi in DC, how my children are doing in school – all the things I have talked about to my friends and family for years now. I want to throw out an issue and beat it to death with the equivalent of a conversation that might take place over days. I want to talk about books we both might have read and either loved or hated. I want to dump my heart out to someone when it fills up with too much of any emotion. This is starting to sound like I am looking for an e-mail psychotherapist. But I don’t think it’s really that. I think it’s more that I have spent a lot of time not doing critical thinking and I find that I much prefer it over the MUZAK thoughts that otherwise fill my head. I write in this BLOG almost daily, trying to tempt someone into starting a similar BLOG or at least sending me comments. But so far, only little nibbles.

So how does one find such an e-mail companion? Put out a message on the Internet – Wanted: Smart person who would like to electronically dialog with me on a regular basis. I wonder how many nutcases would answer a want ad like that? I’m not quite desperate enough to find out... not just yet anyway.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Saving Santiago

One of the advantages of learning to speak Spanish a long time ago is that I now can communicate freely with the cleaning people of the Washington world. Including Morena Henriquez, who cleans my office at the Census Bureau. We have struck up a wonderful working relationship over the last few years. She cooks delicious Hispanic food for me and I serve as her advocate in matters that involve reading or speaking English – from paying a parking ticket to getting her furnace replaced and not being ripped off to most recently trying to help her son Santiago.

Santiago is a sweet, well-mannered 11-year-old boy who already repeated 3rd grade, but is currently reading at only a 2nd grade level. For years Morena has been hearing how much everyone loves Santiago but not getting much more information about his learning disability than “He’s just a little slow.” They always blame it on his English language deficiency. But Morena has noticed that he can’t remember anything he just read in either language 5 minutes later. There is something else going on here.

I took off from work this morning to accompany Morena to Santiago’s current school to try once again, this time with Ms. Burns, the special ed teacher. His last testing was 3 years ago. They seem to have lost the detailed results, but from his score of 50% on the reading comprehension section, this problem has been around for a while. When I lobbied Ms. Burns to re-test Santiago immediately, she pushed to wait until next November when his 3 years were up. It was obvious that she was treating him as a generic “slow learner” and had not a clue as to why he couldn’t read or remember. With a little cajoling and pressure, Ms. Burns finally agreed to bring up Santiago’s case at the April meeting of the committee that meets once a month to determine whether he could be re-evaluated sooner. I also asked about the independent testing that was mentioned in the parents’ rights brochure. Unfortunately even though the school is billed as an ESL school, it seems woefully unable to deal with parents who don’t speak English.

I came back to work and immediately called my friend Linda, who is a psychologist who works with college students who have learning disabilities. She is seeking out someone who will test Santiago outside the P.G. County school system and try to really diagnose his problem. If anyone can find a solution to this, it is Linda.

I seem to be taking on Santiago’s cause as my personal crusade. It would just be a shame to let this sweet little boy become another victim of the educational system without every really dealing effectively with his as-yet-undiagnosed problem. I am determined not to let that happen!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Mutual Life and Casualty

We went to Politics and Prose this afternoon to hear our friend Liz Poliner read from her new book Mutual Life and Casualty. I don’t even know that many published authors, so this was a real treat.

Liz is an exceptional person. She is absolutely gorgeous. She is an accomplished flutist. She is a practicing lawyer. She teaches creative writing at the Writers’ Workshop in Bethesda and at GWU. She has published poetry. And now she has published her first novel. Besides all this, she is a genuinely nice and unaffected person. She is probably in her early 40's, but it is hard to tell her age.

Liz is active in our synagogue, often playing the flute at services. So the majority of the 75+ people who turned out for her reading were Micah members. Everyone loves her.

The book is a series of short stories that take place in a small Connecticut town in the early 70's. It is a study of the relationships of mothers and daughters. Two of the men in the stories work for the Mutual Life and Casualty Insurance Company – whence the title.

Liz read us one of the stories. Her descriptions of the characters and the setting were so compelling that I can still see in my mind many of the scenes. It is obvious that this book deals with some weighty issues that involve difficult decisions.

Needless to say, we bought the book and had Liz sign it. She even agreed to come to one of our couples book club meetings to discuss it with us. WOW! We never before had an author attend! Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read the book.

In the question and answer period, Liz made it clear that writing has always been her passion. She also said that she has learned a lot from her writing students. It really makes me want to take a class with her. The next one starts in May. I need to either retire or find a few more hours in every day to do all the things I want to do.